The first fifty years of the organized blind movement in the United States are now history. At the time of this writing (mid-March, 1990) there seems little doubt as to what direction the second fifty years will take. The details, of course, cannot be predicted; but the vigor, commitment, and continuity seem assured. When (as occurred in 1989) blind children of nine and thirteen join together for collective action in the name of the National Federation of the Blind and blind teen-agers come to the platform at the Federation convention to talk of the movement and its mission, the pattern of the decades ahead seems unmistakable and the road to the future clearly marked. The blind have come of age, determined to speak for themselves and control their own destiny.
The Braille Monitor, November, 1989
From the Associate Editor: Our opponents are inclined to dismiss the National Federation of the Blind as a bunch of type A overachievers with half-baked notions about how the blind can compete on terms of equality if given an even break. When confronted with the evidence of ordinary blind people successfully living normal, productive lives, they mutter about our philosophy's being nonsense but the training we advocate being sound.
It is not clear how these apologists would explain away the crop of youngsters who are emerging now as products of the NFB's philosophy as expressed and lived by the members of the NFB's Parents of Blind Children Division. Informed and reinforced by the Federation, these parents are demanding that their children receive (often for the first time) appropriate and necessary instruction in Braille, keyboard skills, and cane travel. These parents are coming to understand that their children can live normal, fully productive lives if and only if they learn to believe in themselves and equip themselves with the skills they need to compete with their sighted peers.
Two young men, products of the NFB philosophy so disdained by these experts, took part in a panel discussion during the parents' seminar preceding the 1989 convention of the National Federation of the Blind, sponsored jointly by the Parents of Blind Children Division and the Job Opportunities for the Blind Program. Their remarks are inspiring and highly instructive. As the mother of three sighted youngsters, the youngest of whom is older than these two teen-agers, I am tempted to ask whether most sighted teens could have written and presented talks as interesting, well-constructed, and inspiring as the two reprinted here. Most of us would agree that blindness, while it does not confer special powers, certainly does provide extraordinary opportunities for growth. The remarks that follow illustrate this point.
Dan Ryles, son of Ruby Ryles, first vice president of the Parents of Blind Children Division, is fourteen. He is now a sophomore in high school. Here is what he had to say to parents of blind children when given a chance to tell it like it is. This was his first real public address, and he delivered it from a Braille text:
Good morning. My family moved to the Seattle area the summer before my eighth grade year. I was, and still am, the only blind kid in my school district, and the teachers and students had little or no experience with blind people before I enrolled. The kids' preconceptions about blindness, along with the normal junior high mentality, made the first semester exceptionally difficult. Not many people spoke to me or had much to do with me. Of course, there were those few who constantly hung around me wanting to know exactly how I did everything. I could live with that, but what hurt me were the times spent getting dressed and undressed for gym class in the locker room. Surely most of you remember what eighth-grade locker room talk is like. Much of it is obscene and very cruel. My blindness seemed to make me the perfect target for insults and ridicule. I couldn't cry in front of the kids, but I did cry on occasion at home. Even my new girl friend had lots of negative attitudes, which were painful to me.
The science teacher took it upon himself to decide for me what assignments I could and could not do, never considering the possible adaptations I might make. I knew his attitudes were not good when on the first day of class he assumed I would need to tape his lectures instead of Brailling notes with my slate and stylus. Those were hard times, but my mom helped me through them with the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. She told me that the things the kids said weren't really true. Junior high kids will find something wrong with everyone, and they will greatly exaggerate it. My blindness was the most obvious characteristic they could see.
I have come a long way since then. The kids have gradually come to accept me. This last year (my ninth-grade year) I took algebra, Spanish, chemistry, American history, English, and symphonic band. I would never have gotten to where I am today if my mom had not had the necessary reading and writing skills to teach me when everyone else was learning them in print. I also learned basic cane skills in first and second grade. That may seem early when compared to some kids' experience, but not as early as I should have been taught it. If I had had a cane in preschool, things would have been a lot easier. The earlier you teach a kid cane skills, the sooner he can travel independently.
Now I can travel as well as anyone and have a daily paper route, which brings in $120 a month. I do the route entirely on my own, including collections, for which I Braille the receipts. I was lucky. I had a mom who didn't over-protect me. I did, and still do, occasionally scrape a knee or bruise an elbow. I once even had stitches in my head, but that's just a natural part of growing up. It has nothing to do with my blindness. What is not natural is for blind kids to have reading and writing skills taught to them later than sighted kids. This may sound a little crude, but if you'll be as mean as my mom, your blind kid will be okay.
Darrell Shandrow, son of Betty Shandrow, President of the Parents of Blind Children Division of Arizona, is a junior in high school. He has taken public speaking, but speech class was never like this. Here is what he had to say:
Good morning, everybody. I have congenital glaucoma. I lost my left eye when I was little, and I have very little usable vision in the other. I was also born deaf, but I have been able to hear since age five. My parents and the National Federation of the Blind are helping me to live independently. My parents felt that it was important that I learn cane travel and other orientation skills at an early age so that I would be independent. By doing so I have been able to participate in public service events and communicate using amateur radio for the last four years. My parents said that I could do anything I set my mind to. I was raised as a normal person who cannot see. I was not over-protected, and this is the major reason I can function normally.
My parents always felt that I should be allowed to function on the same grade level in school as that of the sighted. My mother took classes at the University of Arizona in Grade II Braille, Nemeth Code, abacus, structure and function of the eye, and daily living skills. With this knowledge my mother helped me learn how to read and write and to have a normal life. By tutoring me at home, she made sure that I was not held back. Due to my experiences with amateur radio, my parents felt that I was ready to use high-technology equipment. They got me an Apple II-E computer, an Echo III synthesizer, a printer, a Braille 'n' Speak, and computer software that is written for the blind. This technology makes things go much easier in school. I can take notes on the Braille 'n' Speak at school, and when I get home, I can send the notes to the computer, where they are printed and saved onto a disk.
The National Federation of the Blind has reinforced my independence. I can't help but get that feeling of independence when I'm around people like Jim Omvig, Norm and Bruce Gardner, Ruth Swenson, and the other Federationists. I feel that the NFB promotes independence in many ways. I feel that one of the major ways is through the national convention. It's great to be around so many independent blind people. I also feel that the Braille Monitor gives ideas of independence through its informative articles. This is the key to Federation philosophy. We must be independent to fight discrimination. We are the blind speaking for ourselves. That's what makes the National Federation of the Blind unique.
The philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind has caused me to decide that I want to fight against discrimination. The National Federation of the Blind hired Richard Arbach and Ruth Swenson as my attorneys in my case against the Moranna School District to be allowed to attend public school. The case was settled in my favor, and the Moranna School District pays for transportation and tuition for me to attend Pallaverty High School in the Tucson Unified School District. I am now a junior and have a 4.0 grade point average. I would like to thank Ruth Swenson, Richard Arbach, and the National Federation of the Blind for helping me to get into public school. Now I have a famous quote from the Braille Monitor that I feel goes along with what I've said about the Federation, and I'm sure you can guess which one it is. It's in the front, I guess on the masthead. It goes like this: The National Federation of the Blind is not an organization speaking for the blind it is the blind speaking for themselves, and that's it for me. Thank you.
The Braille Monitor, August, 1989
From the Editor: When does a person become mature? At what age does he or she become responsible for helping make the world better, not only for himself or herself but also for others? More to the point (at least, for purposes of this discussion) how old must an individual be to become (in the active, full sense of the word) a Federationist? How about 13? What about 9?
The Associate Editor and I recently received a letter from two students at the Ohio State School for the Blind, which helped me answer the question. I found the letter both delightful and heart-warming. I also found it instructive, for it told me that our message and philosophy are beginning to permeate every segment of the blind population children, adults, and the elderly; the rich and the poor; the educated and the illiterate. It renewed my faith in the ability of people to act in their own enlightened self-interest and to do it collectively. It underscored something which, at the core of my being, I have never doubted that the future of the National Federation of the Blind is going to be all right.
Even now the leaders of the fourth generation are developing and reaching for maturity. They are learning their Federation philosophy at an early age and living it on a daily basis. Read the letter from the students at the Ohio State School for the Blind, and you will see what I mean. Here it is:
April 20, 1989
Dear Dr. Jernigan and Mrs. Pierce:
Our names are Jason Ewell (age 9) and Mike Leiterman (age 13), and we wish to tell you about our coalition the student alliance coalition (SAC) at the Ohio State School for the Blind. Our committee grew out of a minor student concern, which was soon put on the back burner for a major issue. Therefore, we are writing to tell you about our efforts over the past year concerning totally blind students being discriminated against as dining room workers.
This policy is unjust because only students with high residual vision have been allowed to hold these positions. Collectively we decided to approach the administrator of residential services to share this concern because she oversees the dining room staff and, if persuaded, could use her authority to aid us.
We shared with her our belief that our school should be a discriminatory-free environment, in which we could learn by trying as many things as we wished to attempt. She appreciated our honesty and position. Likewise, she thought that other students should follow our example here at the OSSB. Dorm council was started. Every two weeks we meet for around an hour or so to discuss issues which arise out of living in a residential setting. The dietitian, who acts as immediate supervisor over the dining room staff, came to one of our meetings and agreed to help by restructuring the hiring policy and developing a more efficient training program for all who wish to apply. Weekends and daily after school have been designated as periods for the training sessions. At this time those interested seem to be satisfied with this new procedure.
We feel glad that we were able to work together to end this problem. Even though this issue really only directly pertains to the totally blind, we felt it necessary that those with residual vision be active participants because what affects one of us, affects us all.
Jason Ewell and Mike Leiterman